Labour needs to think structurally if it’s serious about deepening democracy
The unexpected growth in Labour’s Westminster seats under Jeremy Corbyn marks the advance of serious left-wing politics in Britain, especially England and Wales. Strangely enough, the Labour Party could be an engine of progressive change for the next phase of Westminster politics. In order to succeed here, it needs to think seriously about how to deepen democracy across the UK. This means detailed and radical thinking about the UK’s democratic structures.
It’s no accident that the growth of a socialist Labour Party is happening at a time of growing poverty and inequality. It also happens at a moment of wider crisis for democracy, both across the UK and more broadly. Brexit is a painfully gleaming example. The leave vote is against something – full EU membership – but does not mandate any particular alternative. Democracy both demands that Brexit be enacted and makes that very difficult. We’ve nearly broken democracy by doing it badly. This poses an immediate problem: how do we enact Brexit in the most democratic way, and ensure democratic control over the nature of the Brexit settlement? It also underlines the need to think carefully about how to structure future referenda, e.g. so that they reflect the complexity of the decision in question. But the issue is bigger than this. The UK would not be in this situation if the views of MPs were not so unrepresentative of their constituents; if diverse local voices were heard in parliament and local communities were empowered to shape their futures; and if representative democracy was not held hostage to the infights of party politics. We urgently need to deepen, and strengthen, democracy across what is currently the UK and within any other structures in which it is involved.
Rigorous and complex structures are needed to enable the difficult process of collective self-rule. British democracy is deficient largely because it doesn’t have these. To respond effectively to the current crisis of democracy, the Labour party needs to fully commit itself to addressing structural questions about how the UK is governed. Its General Election manifesto commits to extending democracy (p.102). Many of the policies it suggests to this end are good: lowering the voting age to 16, and introducing a tougher statutory register of lobbyists, for example. On much else, it is vague. In fairness, it promises: ‘A Labour government will establish a Constitutional Convention to examine and advise on reforming of the way Britain works at a fundamental level. We will consult on its form and terms of reference and invite recommendations on extending democracy.’ For Labour’s, and possibly Britain’s democratic and socialist future, much depends on how far it carries forward this commitment. We didn’t get the Labour government, but here are some recommendations on key issues that Labour must urgently address:
1. Electoral reform
First past the post is a bad model for representative democracy because it is not representative. This is not the place to rehearse its failings in detail. Let’s note briefly that, related to its lack of representativeness, it ignores diversity within constituencies. It is also a bad way of enacting collective self-rule because, with its emphasis on stability, it aims for majority-rule rather than consensus. (I’ve written about this in more detail here). We have just been through another election in which number of seats bore a tenuous relationship to vote share. No wonder the electorate feel disconnected from parliamentary politics. We need proportional representation. It is encouraging that Cat Smith, the Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs, supports PR, along with many other left-wing front benchers. It is discouraging that PR did not appear in the Labour manifesto.
Labour voters and potential Labour voters really need to be loud about this now. Why? Because it looks like Labour might win an election under the First Past the Post System – and that it might have a better chance of doing so than under PR. How many of its votes were tactical, second-choice, votes from Green or Lib Dem voters? Electoral reform is inherently difficult to achieve, because anyone with the power to change the system has probably gained from the current one. Canada offers a recent example: When campaigning, Justin Trudeau swore blind that, if he won, it would be in the last election under first past the post. Having, unexpectedly, won a majority, he commissioned a report into electoral reform. He then declared that his government wouldn’t be pursuing it because there wasn’t public appetite for it. Electoral Reform has not traditionally been a commitment of Corbyn’s, or the Old Labour he represents. We must ensure that electoral reform becomes a Labour Party policy – and a policy that would actually be enacted under a Labour government.
2. The future of the Union – and other stories of local democracy
There are huge question-marks over the future of the United Kingdom. First Brexit reopened the issue of Scottish independence, and Holyrood has voted to hold a second independence referendum. Though the General Election in Scotland seems to have dealt a blow to the independence movement, it is too early to be sure about this, or to tell how grave it is. In Northern Ireland, Brexit in the face of a majority remain vote, the decline of moderate parties, the failure of power-sharing talks in Stormont, and now the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP threaten the Good Friday Agreement. A situation that was never as resolved as most in the rest of the UK tended regard it is in tragic danger of getting worse. It is too early to tell exactly how the wider British left can fully best respond to the new developments in Northern Ireland. Strengthening mechanisms that allow the voices of all communities to be heard, and to be equally heard, is especially important now. The constitutional question may yet be at the heart of the next phase of UK politics.
Can the Union continue? Should it? If so in what form? These are partly questions about the locus of collective self-rule: who constitutes ‘the people’ whose democratic will is to be enacted? Why? Who wants to be part of which collective? They are also partly questions about the relative merits of localising decision-making and sharing decision-making across wider regions, nations, and so on; potentially, about how best to balance these democratically. The question of the Union is therefore related to wider questions of devolution, within and across the UK’s different nations.
The Westminster Labour Party manifesto says it will consider a federalised UK. The Scottish Labour manifesto notes that federalisation is Scottish Labour policy. This openness to reworking the UK is promising. Labour now needs to build on it quickly.
- Further regional devolution, across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as England.
There is a danger if this exclusively takes the form of elected assemblies for big cities, as this would leave smaller towns and rural areas with less of a voice. Importantly, cities often have a different political culture than the towns surrounding them. For instance, in the North West of England, big cities voted remain against a wider North West leave vote.
- English votes for English laws, or an English parliament, needs to become Labour policy.
The manifesto proposes to make a Minister for England; this might be a small step towards further devolution, but not democratic devolution.
- Engaging with independence question better.
According to their manifestos, Westminster Labour and Scottish Labour both oppose a second independence referendum, and independence. There are strong arguments on both sides of the independence debate and I can’t do justice to them here. However, Labour’s inflexibility on independence, within a very fast-changing context, risks missing an opportunity to move Scotland in a more radical direction. By explaining its opposition to a referendum in purely economic terms, it also misses an opportunity to think about how, why, and when referenda should be held, applying the lessons of Brexit. More problematically still, the Labour manifestos gloss over a constitutional issue of fundamental democratic importance at the heart of the indyref 2 debacle: the power to call an independence referendum should reside with Holyrood. Labour MSPs elected on a unionist platform are entitled, perhaps mandated, to vote against a referendum. But Labour must come out against the UK government’s attempts to override Holyrood on the issue.
The need for flexibility is a two way street: the Scottish Green Party should be more open to the Union. It doesn’t help that in Scotland, all parties other than the Tories are caught between an electoral rock and a hard place on independence, in different ways. This is greatly impoverishing a badly needed conversation on Scotland’s, and the UK’s, future, and Labour should have the courage to move the conversation onto different ground.
3. The relationship between party elections and parliamentary elections
Corbyn was democratically elected as Leader of the Labour Party. This left the Labour Party with a leader at odds with a large number of its MPs. That’s nothing new in itself. The same was true when Tony Blair first came to power. But the question this situation foregrounds is no less pressing for having arisen before: how does the mandate of the democratically elected leader relate to the mandates of the democratically elected MPs?
One school of thought is that, because the Labour leader is democratically elected, it is most democratic to let him or her call the shots in the Labour Party. Corbyn was elected in a newly democratised process. Those going against him bewail that process, showing a hatred of democracy. It is a lot more complicated than that.
The Labour leader only has as much influence as he or she does because he or she leads a large parliamentary party, that has received many more votes than its leader. The process for electing MPs is deeply problematic. But it is not so undemocratic that ignoring the mandates of individual MPs advances democracy. Representative democracy falters were representatives become distant from those they are supposed to represent. This problem is amplified hugely where party structures ignore the connection between an MP and their constituents. That is where an MP’s mandate comes from.
Does the mandate from their constituents give an MP carte blanche to ignore the party leader? Roughly, no, though that depends partly on what their constituents say. People might well vote for a party in order to support its leader. I know many socialists who voted for Blairites in the hope of making Corbyn Prime Minister – they want his policies, not their MPs. On the other hand, I know many Blairites who voted for Blairites only because they were not Corbynites, and remainers who voted for remain Labour MPs because they would support a soft Brexit. Those MPs are obliged to vote as they promised they would, whatever Corbyn says. This is a genuine dilemma.
In a future general election, Labour may need to consider fielding more socialist candidates, if attempts to seek consensus fail. In the meantime, imposing homogeneity on a diverse party risks widening the gap between Westminster and those it is supposed to represent.